Sunday, October 31, 2004

It has become commonplace to talk about the "post-9/11" world. Whole forests of trees have likely been cut down to supply the reams of newsprint about how "September 11, 2001 changed everything for Americans." But E.J. Dionne, Jr. reminds us, in his Washington Post piece today, that the American political landscape was radically transformed almost a year before those planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Four years after Al Gore won the popular vote by 540,000 votes and George W. Bush was declared the President by the Supreme Court, voting for president has become a daunting process filled with fears of voter fraud on the Republican side and voter intimidation on the Democratic side.

It wasn't always this way. Voting used to be, in the 19th century, a relatively simple process; in many cases, there weren't even laws requiring people to register before they could vote. The flip side of this, of course, is that large sections of the population were not allowed to vote at all. Women were not fully enfranchised until 1920, and African-Americans could not vote in any meaningful sense until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. But for those Americans who could vote, the process of voting was much more open, much easier, and much more encouraging of participation.

Once these previously excluded groups gained the right to vote, registration laws and other restrictive voting rules began to be passed, in large part to make it more difficult for previously disenfranchised people to vote. The 2000 election just made this state of affairs that much worse.

Aside from the very real threat to democracy in the United States, the transformation of a basic civic right and responsibility into a nightmare of voting challenges and lawsuits calls into question America's credibility when we invade other countries to bring them "democracy" and the "right to free and fair elections."

For the short term, Dionne says, there is not much we can do except pray that this election does not end up in the Supreme Court too. For the long term, though, Dionne has four suggestions:

  • Enact standard, uniform rules for federal elections. It's absurd to have a crazy quilt of different voting rules in each state when we're electing someone who will govern the entire nation.
  • Modify or extend voting hours to be more in synch with how Americans live and work in contemporary society. Early voting, 24-hour voting, and weekend voting are just some of the ways this could be done.
  • Rethink electronic voting. A mode of voting that does not leave a paper trail is an invitation for disaster.
  • Dump the electoral college and elect the president of the United States by popular vote. Appointing "electors" to vote for the people is a relic of an 18th century concept that assumed only wealthy white men were intellectually equipped to cast ballots. That kind of thinking has no place in 21st century America.

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